A recent study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry has found that people who feel lonely are significantly more at risk for developing dementia.
The study, headed by Tjalling Jan Holwerda of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, found that participants who reported feeling lonely, no matter how many friends and family surrounded them, were more likely to experience dementia than those who didn’t feel lonely. The team focused on approximately 2,200 older adults living in Amsterdam, ages 65 to 86. None of the participants exhibited signs of dementia and none of them lived in facilities such as nursing homes. The researchers visited the elders two times over the course of three years. About half of them lived alone, with 20 percent reporting feelings of loneliness, even if they were married or lived with family.
The researchers stress, that solid conclusions can’t be determined at this time because cognitive problems can cause people to withdraw, therefore placing them at higher risk for dementia, so they still aren’t sure in all cases which came first - loneliness or dementia.
Having a partner is generally better for our health
Dementia aside,significant research has shown that having a supportive social network is linked with positive health outcomes, both psychological and physical, while lacking such support can be harmful. Previous studies have also suggested that loneliness itself can kill people, generally by raising blood pressure and increasing risk for stroke or heart disease.
According to Health.com, one study followed nearly 45,000 people ages 45 and up who had heart disease or a high risk of developing the condition. Those who lived alone, the study found, were more likely to die from heart attacks, strokes, or other heart complications over a four-year period than people living with family or friends, or in some other communal arrangement. This is one reason that communal living such as assisted living, is often considered a healthy choice for lonely elders, especially those who have lost a spouse due to death. Socialization gives people a chance to bond with others, thus potentially improving their health.
The Health.com article also reports that having a partner is an important part of health care. The article says that, “” people who don’t have a spouse or other family member keeping an eye on them may be more apt to skip their medications or ignore the warning signs of heart trouble, Bhatt says. (Indeed, a 2011 study found that men who have heart attack-related chest pain tend to get to a hospital sooner if they’re married or living with a partner.)"
Ideally, everyone would have a compatible partner to help them navigate their last years of life. Unfortunately, life is rarely ideal. However, family and friends of aging adults who may be widowed or divorced would do well to encourage these late stage friendships and romances. Being in a loving relationship just may help their parent or friend live healthier and longer.
Szalavitz, M. (2012, December 11) Time. Loneliness, Not Living Alone, Linked to Dementia. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/11/loneliness-not-living-alone-linked-to-dementia/
Vann, M. The Loneliness-Dementia link. Everydayhealth.com. Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/alzheimers/the-loneliness-dementia-link.aspx
Gardner, A. (2012, June 18) Lonely? Your Health May Suffer. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/18/health/mental-health/loneliness-isolation-health/index.html
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.